Law School Discussion

Interested in your opinions

Interested in your opinions
« on: August 24, 2010, 11:16:20 AM »
I saw this on cnn
Wanted by the Drug Enforcement Administration: Ebonics translators.

It might sound like a punch line, as "Ebonics" -- the common name for what linguists call African-American English -- has long been the butt of jokes, as well as the subject of controversy.

But the agency is serious about needing nine people to translate conversations picked up on wiretaps during investigations, Special Agent Michael Sanders said Tuesday. A solicitation was sent to contractors as part of a request to companies to provide hundreds of translators in 114 languages.

"DEA's position is, it's a language form we have a need for," Sanders said. "I think it's a language form that DEA recognizes a need to have someone versed in to conduct investigations."

The translators, being hired in the agency's Southeast Region -- which includes Atlanta, Georgia; Washington; New Orleans, Louisiana; Miami, Florida; and the Caribbean -- would listen to wiretaps, translate what was said and be able to testify in court if necessary, he said.

"The concept is right and good," said Walt Wolfram, distinguished professor of English linguistics at North Carolina State University. "Why wouldn't you want experts who can help you understand what people are communicating?"

"On one level, it's no different than someone from the Outer Banks of North Carolina who speaks a distinct brogue," he said. "The problem is that even the term 'Ebonics' is so controversial and politicized that it becomes sort of a free-for-all."

Wolfram -- who has authored more than 20 books on English dialects, including African-American English -- recalled the Black Panther trials during the 1970s, when there was debate over whether the saying, "Off the pigs," was a genuine threat to kill police officers or a more metaphorical saying.

And Ebonics is no longer spoken only by African-Americans, Sanders said, referring to it as "urban language" or "street language." He said he is aware of investigations in recent years in which it was spoken by African-Americans, Latinos and white people. "It crosses over geographic, racial and ethnic backgrounds," he said.

While the DEA wants to have the translators available, it may not need to call upon them, he said. He did not know how much it would cost to have the translators available.

"I can't say it's spoken all the time, like Spanish and Vietnamese," Sanders said. "But there are people trying to use this to evade detection" while trafficking in drugs, he said.

Asked whether agency currently has agents who can translate Ebonics, Sanders said some who have worked on local police forces can help pick out words on wiretaps.

The term "Ebonics" -- a blend of "ebony" and "phonics" -- became known in 1996, when the Oakland, California, Unified School District proposed using it in teaching English. After the school board came under fire, it voted to alter the plan, which recognized Ebonics as a distinct language.

The revised plan removed reference to Ebonics as "genetically based" and as the "primary language" of students. The board also removed a part that some understood to indicate that African-American students would be taught in Ebonics, although the board denied such intentions.

"There is something of substance here," said Wolfram, who said he has studied African-American English for 40 years. "There are differences in terms of language and lexicon and so forth that are difficult to understand for most people. So it is an issue. What, of course, happens is, it gets politicized and trivialized by the very term 'Ebonics.'"

He acknowledged it's often presented as "nothing but bad language." But, he said, "However you view it ... why wouldn't you want to avail yourself of all the interpretive capability that you can get?"

African-American English is "a systematic language variety, with patterns of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and usage that extend far beyond slang," according to the website of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that says it aims to improve communication through better understanding of language and culture.

"Because it has a set of rules that is distinct from those of standard American English, characterizations of the variety as bad English are incorrect," the center said. "Speakers of AAE do not fail to speak standard American English, but succeed in speaking African American English."

Language barriers that contribute to conflicts between nations can be a "serious issue," Wolfram noted. "It's the same point here."

He said the translators could help in investigations, as "the differences between dialect and code words can get pretty blurry at times."

Sanders said DEA plans to continue seeking the translators.

What do u guys think? Honestly how would they advertise this job? I have mixed feelings. They could ask some of they people they arrested in the past.It could be a ex criminal's way of giving back. Unless they think as many do-snitches get stiches. They wouldn't actually be snitching though.

I thought it was interesting-hope to hear what others think.


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Re: Interested in your opinions
« Reply #1 on: August 24, 2010, 11:29:05 AM »
I think it is probably a good idea, particularly when you consider the majority of law enforcement officials and lawyers are white males from upper middle class backgrounds, that would have no idea how to translate what was said. I went to a large high school that was in the suburbs, but I played basketball on this AAU team in Compton and I was the only white guy and had a really hard time understanding what the other players were saying. They just had a way of speaking that was hard to follow. I eventually picked up on it after awhile it was not that different, but I imagine if you are doing wire taps etc it would be pretty hard to familiarize yourself with what was being said. So I think is probably a great idea, because ebonics or whatever you want to call it does exist. It is not even a bad thing, like you said I might need a translator to help me understand some people from Arkansas and they might need someone to understand my Southern California expressions.

Re: Interested in your opinions
« Reply #2 on: December 24, 2010, 08:34:20 AM »
I'm ok with getting paid extra for speaking like I do on the street, but most other forms of speach have a test to pass to prove fluency, as long as this one has the same I'm ok with it. I wonder if in the next few years we'll see an MA in ebonics, or better yet a PHD. "Doctor Dree" would qualify for an honorary doctorate.  8)